Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, Gen. Riho Terras, said on Tuesday that the situation in the Kerch Strait is “explosive” and that Russia is once again demonstrating its readiness to use military force to achieve its political aims. EDF chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Martin Herem, said that Sunday’s incident must have been planned well in advance.
Terras and Herem appeared on ETV’s Esimene stuudio talk show on Tuesday evening, where they commented on Russia’s stopping and seizing Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Kerch Strait on Sunday.
According to Terras, tensions in the area have been raising for a while. The construction of the Crimean Bridge between the Crimean and Taman peninsulas was completed earlier this year, the bridge is already open for road transport, a rail link across the strait is expected to become operational in summer next year.
Terras said that the bridge has significantly affected shipping through the Kerch Strait, keeping vessels from approaching Ukrainian ports. “The Ukrainians wanted to see how free they are to move around on their own territory, and the Russians have taken active measures [against them],” Terras said. “Russia has demonstrated that its aggressive behaviour is the norm,” he added.
The general also pointed out that the region is of great importance to Russia, which its actions starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 demonstrate.
The possibility that Russia might be planning to expand its operations in the area couldn’t be excluded, Terras said, though currently there is no clear sign of such a move: “They want to do things in such a way that the discussions in Europe’s capitals are still about whether or not there’s a problem at all,” he added.
While what is really needed is a clear condemnation of Russia’s using military force against Ukraine’s navy, and the situation should be dealt with based on this realisation, Terras said. The incident in the Kerch Strait will definitely have to be taken up by the Ukraine-NATO council as well.
Meanwhile it is becoming clear that Russia is no longer happy to rely on its “little green men” in Eastern Ukraine, Terras said, but rather increasing its use of military means. “Ukraine needs to defend itself now to keep further similar developments from happening,” he said.
Herem: Hybrid war already a reality in Kerch Strait
According to the Estonian Defence Forces’ chief of staff and its designated commander after Terras’ retirement, Maj. Gen. Martin Herem, there is no sense in looking at Sunday’s events as an isolated incident.
“This appears to have been a planned operation that included several military branches,” Herem said. “The operation sent a clear message, and in the long term could be followed by a blockade of the economy of the Mariupol region.”
Herem said that what is happening in the Kerch Strait is hybrid warfare, which includes a manipulation of the local economy and likely also information operations where Russia will claim that Ukraine itself provoked the attack. According to Herem, Russia is very good at combining these different elements.